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Rinne, 26, shining for Preds in rookie season

by Larry Wigge

"Big goalie, backup, big gamble, eh? But I've always had that dream. Never even thought about what I would have done with my life, whether I would have done what my parents do for a living. Nothing like that. Always had confidence I could do this."
-- Pekka Rinne

March madness? It's not even here yet, but we're already seeing the playoff pendulum swinging with each save.

"There's not a more dominant position in sports than goaltender, especially at this time of the year," St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray said after watching Nashville's Pekka Rinne stop 30 shots in a 1-0 overtime Predators victory against the Blues on Feb. 21.

So often we've seen one goaltender make a difference by stopping chance after chance with the game on the line.

Some might look at the 6-foot-5 Rinne and think he has to be awkward standing in his goal crease. But looks can be deceiving with the 26-year-old rookie. Don't even try to figure it out by looking him up. All you'll learn is that the Kempele, Finland, native, was bypassed by NHL team until he was drafted by Nashville in the eighth round, with the 258th pick, in the 2004 Entry Draft.

"He's got a great glove. I tried him there a couple of times. Then I thought I could beat him low with a couple of quick shots at his feet," Blues center David Backes said after being stopped on a game-high six shots in that Feb. 21 game. "He's definitely not just a big guy taking up space in front of the net. He's very quick at the bottom and top part of the net."

The shutout was Rinne's fourth of the season. It was the seventh time in his last nine games he had held opponents to two goals or fewer, giving him a sub-2.00 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in that stretch. It was his third 1-0 win this season. Only one other rookie goaltender won three 1-0 games in one season since the 1943-44 season -- Hall of Famer Tony Esposito had four in 1969-70 for Chicago.

This is pretty heady stuff for Rinne, the son of Jukka (a construction supervisor) and Helena (who works in the production of cell phone parts), when a young Pekka put on his cousin Jari's old goaltending pads at age 7 and thought he had grown out of a job when he had a four-inch growth spurt with he was about 16.

There were more obstacles.
Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero recently told the story of how his former boss, Predators GM David Poile, sent him to Finland to get a look at Rinne.

"I saw his team play twice, but (Minnesota Wild goalie) Niklas Backstrom played both games," Shero said. "I don't even remember if I filed a report on how he stopped the puck in the pre-game warmups."

"I think Ray was our backup plan," Poile said with a straight face. "I remember Janne Kekalainen (European scout) told us (Rinne) was a late-bloomer with great size.

"We were looking for goaltending depth at the time and Janne identified him as a guy we would want to look at in the draft ... and he's turned out to be a great development story."

The story is a classic, in fact.

"Big goalie, backup, big gamble, eh?" Rinne said with a laugh. "But I've always had that dream. Never even thought about what I would have done with my life, whether I would have done what my parents do for a living. Nothing like that. Always had confidence I could do this."

And now it's Pekka Rinne who sends his old equipment back to Finland for his cousin, who, five years older, is a goaltender in a recreational league.

"He's a big goalie -- and despite the fact that there can be big holes with a tall and slow goalie -- Pekka is a big goalie who has the athleticism of a smaller goaltender," said Predators goaltender coach Mitch Korn.

"He's 6-5 and really quick. I can only wonder how much of the net opposing shooters see," added coach Barry Trotz.

"He's fun to play in front of," said Predators defenseman Shea Weber. "You won't find a more competitive goaltender. I saw that the first time I played with him in Milwaukee (American Hockey League) four years ago."

Seeing Backstrom and Rinne in lockers next to one another at the recent All-Star Game in Montreal was a stark reminder of what Oulu had in goal when the team won back-to-back Finnish Elite League championships in 2002 and '03.

"We have both come pretty far," Backstrom said.

"He was the backup," Rinne laughed.

Then he corrected himself, saying, "Actually, I watched and learned a lot about patience from him."

Patience. That could be the bottom line to Rinne's story. Instead, it was Rinne who made it to North America and played in an NHL game before the more-touted Backstrom, who never was drafted and yet is closing in on his 150th NHL game.

"I'd never really thought about the NHL as a career until I was drafted," Rinne said, recalling his flight from Helsinki to New York to Nashville in August 2005. "It was kind of funny if you think about it. I didn't know anything about them ... and they really didn't know anything about this backup goalie from Oulu.

"I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if I was going to be here for one week, one month or what. Some days I was homesick for my parents. But I just looked at this as the chance of a lifetime for me. I didn't mind going to Milwaukee. I knew I would get a chance to play there and put to use a lot of the things I couldn't work on in game action playing behind Nik."

You could say Rinne's career started during that great growth spurt of his when he was about 16.

"I started working with a guy named Ari Hilly back in Finland after I grew so much," said Rinne. "I had to have time to grow into my body, get stronger, train harder and learn how to work with my body in goal. Ari helped me work on my quickness, my patience and my angles. He still text-messages me all the time when he catches one of my games on TV."
"I've learned that nothing can be taken for granted. I have to prove myself every day to stay here." -- Pekka Rinne
Rinne says his two Finnish championships and getting the Admirals to the Calder Cup finals in 2006 are the highlights of his late-developing career. He hopes the two-steps-forward-one-step-back phase of his earlier career between the pipes is over.

After that 2005-06 season, Rinne returned to Finland and was beaten by three strangers while walking home after a friend's bachelor party. He sustained a dislocated shoulder that required surgery and put his future on hold for several months at the start of 2006-07.

"You shake your head and wonder why anyone would do something like that," Rinne said. "But you can't stop living. The way I look at it is it was just another message telling me I have to work hard to overcome every obstacle I face.

"The way I look at it my career started in Milwaukee. New culture. New language. I've learned that nothing can be taken for granted. I have to prove myself every day to stay here."

You could say that the obstacles now are all behind Rinne, who has become a big obstacle Nashville's opponents have had to face as we approach the NHL's version of March madness -- where goalies of all shapes and sizes often become the great equalizer.
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